The first is Harry Turner, who joined the British Army at age 18, served in combat in Afghanistan, and was given a medical discharge due to depression and PTSD. (As far as the movie shows, he wasn’t given much else in terms of support.) Harry left England and traveled to the Amazon, intending to end his life — which he didn’t want to do where his 13-year-old brother would find him. Instead, he stumbled onto a wildlife rescue-and-rehabilitation center run by American Samantha Zwicker. Harry begins working with the animals and is eventually entrusted with the care of Keanu the ocelot, a spotted wildcat about the size your house cat thinks it is. Keanu, we learn, was probably orphaned by mining or logging operations.
“I’m going to teach him how to become a killer,” Harry says.
It’s one of the clear lines that connect him to his four-footed charge: For Harry, learning to kill was the key to his survival, but it has left him damaged. Keanu also must learn to kill for food, but if he learns to do that, he’ll have to leave Harry behind. It’s a lot like parenting: The measure of Harry’s success will be how easily Keanu can live without him.
If you’re looking for lots of footage of Keanu growing and pouncing and being otherwise adorable, there’s plenty of that. And while Keanu is not a pet — which is the fate of some orphaned ocelots, popular among a certain set of rich people — any pet owner can relate to Harry’s affectionate exasperation with Keanu’s antics, especially since Let’s Bite Dad seems to be one of his favorite games. More compelling, though, are the moments when Harry steps back and lets Keanu make his own mistakes. A run-in with a spider and a later one with a caiman are nerve-racking, since “helping” Keanu now means hurting him down the road.
While Harry and Keanu’s connection is the film’s central dynamic, Harry’s relationship with Samantha is also prominent. The daughter of an alcoholic father, she admits that she’s not one to give up on people, possibly to her detriment. Harry’s mental state is not always a good one, and Samantha is sometimes at a loss to know how — or whether — to help. Any viewers who have found themselves in the role of caretaker for someone with mental health or substance abuse issues may find some of the scenes featuring Harry and Samantha scarier than those featuring large arachnids or toothy reptiles.
First-time feature directors Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh use a variety of footage to tell the story: home movies, their own camerawork, and some scenes shot by Harry and Samantha. It mostly works, with one catch. “Wildcat” doesn’t quite hang together, both visually, which is forgivable, and narratively. The film’s human subjects are a bit too removed from the camera, resulting in a loss of intimacy that makes the best documentaries so compelling.
Maybe Turner and Zwicker didn’t want to let the filmmakers in. Maybe Frost and Lesh should have pushed harder. Either way, it’s a missed opportunity, especially considering that the four pretty much lived together for months in the jungle. The film’s under-two-hour run time leaves just enough minutes to tell the stories of two subjects well — with the kind of depth and care they deserve — or the stories of three subjects at a surface level. Clearly, the filmmakers went for the latter option, which simultaneously gives the audience too much and not enough.
Still, for fans of wildlife documentaries, “Wildcat” is at least as good as, say, a rerun of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” (Google it). That is to say: It’s enjoyable while it lasts but fades from the mind soon after, all except for that little piece of a viewer’s heart that holds out hope that little Keanu — and the people who raised him — will one day find the lives they deserve.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Available Dec. 30 on Prime Video. Contains strong language and mature thematic elements, including discussion of suicide and self-harm. 105 minutes.